Brokenness and Mercy

My brokenness informs my capacity for mercy. Without it I judge others without considering my own need to be made whole. Contemplating my own brokenness, I am reminded of these passages from a wonderful book I read a few years back.

Bryan Stevenson tells the story in Just Mercy, about the particularly trying moment after the Supreme Court of the United States had denied a stay of execution to Jimmy Dill. Dill had been convicted of murder after his victim had been shot in a botched drug deal. The victim initially lived and was transported to a local hospital. After some time, the victim was released and Dill was charged with assault and attempted murder. Shortly thereafter, the victim was abandoned by his caretaker and died of causes unrelated to the shooting wound. Dill’s charges were upgraded to first degree murder and he was sentenced to Alabama’s death row.

Finally, the word came that all of Stevenson’s appeals on behalf of Dill had been exhausted and that Jimmy Dill would be executed that very evening. Stevenson writes, “For the first time I realized that my life was just full of brokenness. I worked in a broken system of justice. My clients were broken by mental illness, poverty, and racism. They were torn apart by disease, drugs and alcohol, pride, fear, and anger…In their broken state, they were judged and condemned by people whose commitment to fairness had been broken by cynicism, hopelessness, and prejudice. I looked at my computer and at the calendar on the wall. I looked again around my office at the stacks of files. I saw the list of our staff, which had grown to nearly forty people. And before I knew it, I was talking to myself aloud: ‘I can just leave. Why am I doing this?’ 

“I do what I do because I’m broken, too. My years struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself. Being close to suffering, death, executions, and cruel punishments didn’t just illuminate the brokenness of others; in a moment of anguish and heartbreak, it also exposed my own brokenness. You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it.” 

“Thomas Merton said: We are bodies of broken bones. I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion. We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.” (Excerpts from Just Mercy 288-289)